Classroom Culture Clashes

My students' representation of me
My students’ representation of me

As my week of Character Archetypes in World Literature continued, I continued to stumble.  Sometimes we are not even aware of what our own cultural expectations are.  Thus my trouble.  (TOK teachers of the world rejoice!)

I should have known better about my first cultural belief.  I do know better, I just wasn’t prepared when faced with a room full of students expecting brilliance from me and who eerily betray no affect on their faces, unless you look very, very closely.  Teaching can be quite unnerving at times.  But in order to convey the literary archetype of Hero’s Journey, I leave my dignity at the door and in my usual animated style tell the exciting tale of the hero on a quest!  Our hero is knight; of course in my mind that conjures up images of the European medieval paladin on a large horse with a castle in the background.  So I tell the simple tale of leaving the castle, charging up the hill to the cave to kill the fearsome dragon!  It’s a thrilling tale.  Believe me.  My storytelling is enrapturing.  But my students remain unmoved.  They may even appear confused if I read their faces closely.  So I slow down – highly difficult for me – and begin again, speaking and acting out all of the stages of the Hero’s Journey – off to kill the dragon!  By now, readers, some of you may have figured out what the problem with my story was.  But I’m too caught up in my storytelling to recognize it.

Finally, just as before, the same brave girl raises her hand and asks, “Why is he killing a dragon?”

Of course.  In China, dragons are not fearsome monsters representing evil and fear of the unknown (English teacher definition.)  They are representations of good fortune, benevolent power, and even the emperor himself.  Oh dear.  I just suggested idiocy and a potential political coup.  I’m expecting the Chinese version of SWAT to come whisk me away any day now.

Chinese SWAT might also get me on this one too:  God and soul.  How do you explain the concepts of a god and a soul to a group of people who have absolutely zero exposure to such ideas?  The word “god” does not even translate into Chinese.  When my teacher assistants – who looked at me blankly when I said the word – typed into their translation software, they received the answer “ghost.”  Not really what I was going for.   “Soul” also translated to “ghost.”    I tried explaining the idea of a spirit within us.  Nothing but crickets.  And the word “spirit” translated to “wine” and “ghost.”   Not much of an improvement.  So I tried a different approach.

“What happens to you when you die?”


“We are dead.”

And that was my dead end, if you’ll pardon the expression.

Upon reflection and a week later, several students shared that maybe they would be reincarnated or be a ghost.   Back to the ghost idea.  But I tried again with the translation.  This time the word “deity” popped up.  That was certainly an improvement.  We could work with that.  It did seem to help their understanding of the god concept.   But the closest we could come was the gods of ancient mythologies with petty human characteristics and only immortality and superpowers to set them apart.   Most students think it is silly, but at least they are understanding the basic concepts.  But a grasp on the idea of one omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient God, as found in most of the world’s dominant religions, still eludes them.

In a few weeks, I think I am going to try a third approach – through metaphor.  One of my favorite things about the Chinese and their expression is their love and frequent use of metaphor.  They talk about “soft hearts” and a “winter expression.”  Fitzgerald and Hemingway would sing, just as my soul does, even though they don’t have a word for it.  So perhaps I will try that route, and attempt to convey “God” by an analogy to an emperor.  Or maybe even – gasp! –  Chairman Mao?  Am I allowed to do that?  I suppose my desperation to teach my students knows no boundaries.

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Here are few other fun cultural/linguistic confusions for a language classroom that cause me consternation.  Imagine teaching deep analysis of English literature to students whose native language:

~ has no capital letters

~ has no gender pronouns

~ uses very little punctuation

~ does not change verbs based on tense

They have also never operated any writing software or even a computer operating system before.   And they have never typed on a keyboard before, much less a Western keyboard.  They also do not have italics for Chinese characters and therefore they do not even see the difference between italics and straight lettering in English.  When I teach how to write an essay in the US, I usually mean how to write thesis statements and complete paragraphs.  Here, the statement of “teaching how to writing an essay” is much more basic and more literal.  It is teaching how to write – how to type letters into a keyboard.  How to put words into a software program.  And while this only takes about a day to teach, watching them struggle as they continue to do it every day makes me want to scream with frustration at their agonizing pace and shout with admiration for their unflinching tenacity.  And I cannot help them because their keyboards and software programs (even Apple’s “pages”) are in Chinese!  I have, at least, learned the Chinese characters for “delete” and “add” due to this conundrum.

* * * * *

I have saved my favorite school story for last.  In the late fall, just as the weather turned bitingly cold, our school decided to have its first fire drill.  We are housed within a middle school, so we are at their mercy for the choice of when to do this miserable outdoor activity.  Apparently it is universal across the world to wait until the first wet, soggy, and freezing day of winter to remember that we should practice our escape routes.  Seriously, every fire drill I have ever experienced seems to be on the worst possible day to venture outside.   But this particular drill took it to a whole new level, not without its amusements.

In the middle of my first class, the PA system interrupts with a harsh blast to announce  – in Chinese – a fire drill.  My TA translates for me.  She continues to translate as the militant voice gives instructions about what to do.

“When the alarm sounds, first hide under your desks.  When the second alarm sounds, run for your lives.”

Wait, what?

“Is that translation correct,” I query.

She puzzles for a moment.  Then, “No.”

I breathe a sigh of relief.

“They say, ‘run as fast as you can.’”

Ok.   Three hundred middle school students and twenty-one teenagers all running as fast as they can down flights of stairs and outside to escape an imaginary fire.  What could possibly go wrong?

I take a moment to assure my teenage charges that they do not need to run, but rather walk in an orderly manner in such a way as to not trample all of the small children around them, even if they are annoying.

The first alarm and then the second alarm sound and we accordingly move outside, after holding back until the screaming hordes of middle schoolers have made it to the soccer pitch.   I still cannot fathom how that mass of children eventually organized itself into lines.  In fact, I have never seen people here form a line ever for anything, so it was refreshing to see that they could when their lives were at stake.

Of course their lives weren’t really at stake, not yet anyway.  However, after the drill was over, a very official-looking man addressed the school through a loudspeaker that probably caused my ears permanent damage and (again translated for me) informed us in a very official manner about how good it is to practice fire drills, how good we all were, how good our time was, and how good China is.  This would have been miserable enough given the biting wind and freezing temperatures, but in China everything is said three times.  The first time you say something in metaphor, the second time you say the same thing more directly, and the third time you say it very nicely and with a conclusion about it or at least tangentially related.  By the time all of this official information was officially conveyed, my students had started turning blue.   Above chattering teeth their eyes implored me to be allowed to return indoors.  But we were stuck and I began to fear for our lives.  How ironic to practice escape from fire only to freeze to death.  Eventually the seemingly interminable speech did actually end and we were able to “run as fast as we can” back indoors to our classrooms which respectively felt warm.  It was my first introduction to Shandong winter.  And to the reality behind the expression, “Chinese fire drill.”


Fifth of November

Remember remember the Fifth of November! In celebration of Guy Fawkes day, I thought I would write a little bit about the notion of the rebel, especially since it serendipitously came up in class today.

For the last week my Chinese students have been studying archetypes of characters in world literature. Of course, this actually means Western archetypes and literature. Many characters translate to Eastern cultures: the hero of course, the female temptress of course, the mentor, the allies, etc. But three characters boldly oppose the most fundamental Chinese sensibilities. The primary of these is the Rebel.

Westerners have a soft spot in their hearts for the rebel. The outlaw, the cowboy, the James Dean. We have romanticized this character to no end: Robin Hood, Han Solo, Captain Sparrow, the list goes on and on. Even Guy Fawkes, a man who planned the murder of hundreds of non-combatants to overthrow the government and institute violent anarchy in real life gets his own cool movie, mask, and slogan. Therefore I assigned my “coolest” boy the task of presenting this character to his ninth grade class. (Or, “Grade 9” class, because the word “ninth” is too difficult to say.) I expected Paul would love this assignment. Imagine my surprise when he defines a rebel as a bad guy who betrays the hero. “He should die.”

I have to chime in. “The two big characteristics of a rebel are he is independent and he defies authority.” I continue to explain he does not like to be controlled, he breaks the rules, and he is often on his own and not part of the group. As these concepts tumble thoughtlessly out of my mouth, I watch my students become sullen and confused. I slowly become aware that I am describing everything that fights the very core of the Chinese identity. Finally, in desperation, I blurt out, “But audiences like him. He’s sexy.”

Nothing. The only sound is the air filter uselessly blasting away.

Then one of my bravest girls raises her hand and asks, “Why is he sexy if he is alone?”

Chinese identity centers around community. I have heard different version of the order of the communities each person belongs to, but the three communities are these: your country, your city/village, your family. Usually in this order. Outside these communities a person is nothing. Everything is for the group. Food symbolizes this value at the most basic level. All food is shared from a communal bowl; there are no individual plates. Everyone contributes and everyone benefits. When a person leaves home to make their way in the world, they still send most of their earnings back to their family and village. A loner does not contribute. Therefore he has no honor and no respect. Historically, the greatest punishment is exile.

Then there is the concept of control, which makes Americans shudder. We start to finger the guns that Easterners believe we all own as we narrow our eyes suspiciously in the direction of authority. Chinese people experience a completely opposite visceral reaction. Comfort, warm fuzzies, confidence, a gentle blanket – these are their concepts of control. What scares us the most they find the most comforting. I have heard it explained like this: If someone tells you what to do, everyone knows what to do and there is no confusion. You do what you are told and then you know you are doing the right thing. And when you do the right thing then you know you are good and have honor. So you are happy and everybody is happy.
Of course, Westerners would say that the flaw in this logic is that leaders might be telling you something that is bad, not good. But that is basing logic on a different system. How do you define good and bad? By Chinese definition good is what you are told. Good is defined by the leader, not an objective or absolute esoteric idea.

Faced with this logic, I conceded defeat – the rebel is a character who creates complex feelings in his audience. But! He always comes back at the end to to help the hero (because he is sorry he betrayed him) and therefore we can like him again! He should not die! They agreed to not kill him and we moved on.

Conclusion: remember remember to always assume nothing when it comes to cultural expectations!